The word petroglyph means stone carving. The Hawaiian word for these carvings is ki’i pohaku, meaning image stone. These are carvings made by ancient Hawaiians into rough lava rock. The artists would use sharp tools and stone hammers to chip away at the rocks in thin lines, etching the pictures by scraping repeatedly until the markings were sufficiently deep.
A petroglyph might be a carving of anything from humans to sailing, canoes, fish hooks, animals and unspecified inscriptions. Many scholars believe that the carvings fall under one of three categories: cryptic, symbolic or descriptive. Often the petroglyphs are enigmatic and mysterious and are not easy for historians to determine the meaning. When westerners first came into contact with Hawaiians, there were records of men and women reportedly having unique tattoos and markings which many some believe to be identifying personal signs or signatures. These individual signs are believed to have corresponded to some of the cryptic petroglyphs.
Other artistic stone carvings tell of significant happenings such as births, hunts, battles, sea voyages and similar significant events; while others represent spiritual symbolism for ceremonies promising a long life of a new baby, mystical creatures or guardian gods in the form of animals.
Human figures are consistent subject matter for petroglyphs. The men are usually characterized by a closed triangle and broad shoulders and arms. They often are shown holding spears, fishing poles, paddles, gourds and even standing on what appear to be surf boards.
Most of the larger collections of petroglyphs are located on Hawaii’s Big Island, with more than 100 places where visitors can view them. At the Puako Petroglyph Archeological Preserve in South Kohala, more than 3,000 carvings can be admired. Several nearby hotels provide informational brochures about these sites as well as a map to help tourist navigate where to go and how to avoid damaging what are believed to be Hawaii’s oldest petroglyphs. Anaeho’omalu Bay, just a few miles south of the Puako site, is another field where petroglyphs near the golf course can be observed closely. There are images of people, canoes, circles and cryptic designs.
At the Pu’u Loa archeological site in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Chain of Craters Road are stone inscriptions and carvings exceeding 23,000 in number. Other Big Island petroglyph sites are at Kahalu’u Bay near Kailua-Kona, at the Ka’upulehu site near the Kona Village Resort and in the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park where guests can witness ornate carvings of ships, canoes and sails.
In Maui there are petroglyphs in Haleakala National Park as well as in Lahaina, among other places. On Kauai petroglyphs are visible at the mouth of Wailua River and at Mahaulepu Beach, where drawings can only be seen after big surf exposes them. Molokai has carvings on the iconic Phallic Rock in Pala’au State Park. Lanai’s petroglyphs are scattered all over the island, particularly at Kaunolu and Luahiwa where menacing images of a man-eating bird are often highlighted in the carvings.
On Oahu there are three petroglyph sites near Nu’uanu Stream in Honolulu. The carvings at Nu’uanu are sometimes haunted with the image of a terrorizing ghost-dog called Kaupe. Recently, more petroglyphs were found at Pupukea Beach after a series of powerful swells washed away the sand that had been covering them for many years.
One can rightfully expect–even with the innumerable number of carvings already known across the Hawaiian Islands–there may be petroglyphs yet to be discovered. You never know how the weather may pull back deeper layers of Hawaii, unveiling more of its secrets through messages carved deep on cave walls or the side of boulders.
Vacationers, who want to peer into the past, should prioritize visiting some of the petroglyphs of Hawaii, as this is the best way to enjoy prehistoric art that has not been tampered with or removed to museums and private collections. All admirers are asked to be respectful and not to touch the images while visiting Hawaii’s historic petroglyphs sites.